On Sunday mornings this fall I've been waking up, getting a cup of coffee, flipping on Headline News and pretending I'm interested in watching Toria Tolley detail the latest failed cease-fire in Bosnia, the new hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico and President Clinton's ongoing budget battle with Congress. But what I've really been doing is trying not to watch the college football scores as they flick across the bottom of the TV screen. I've struggled to avert my eyes as the SportsTicker starts with the results from the games played in the East, and then runs through the games in the Midwest. By then I'm desperately hoping that the phone will ring or a dog will bark—anything to distract me when the Big Ten scores finally appear. That's because I am a Northwestern fan, and I'm terrified of pressing my luck.
This season, in which the infamous Mildcats have beaten Notre Dame and Michigan and risen to No. 8 in the national polls with a 6-1 record, has been almost incomprehensible to those of us who were at Northwestern when the Wildcats tied Illinois 0-0 in 1978 for the only blemish on that year's 0-10-1 record. (Question: Who were the opposing coaches in that game? Answer: The legendary Rick Venturi for Northwestern and Gary Moeller for Illinois.) It is as if the Nobel committee had called to say I had won the prize for literature based on my work a decade ago as the sports editor of the Houma (La.) Daily Courier, where I wrote about high school football and fishing rodeos.
But if Northwestern's season has been hard to believe, it has not been hard to enjoy. In fact, the Wildcats' 35-0 victory over Wisconsin last Saturday was a terrific example of just how much fun winning really is. For the first time in my adult life I'm not cowering during the college football season, enduring the slings and arrows of outrageous fans from every trash-talking, rules-bending school that goes 6-5 and winds up in some postseason game like the Poulan/Weed Eater Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La. This season I can look down my nose at teams from Alabama, Auburn, Miami, Oklahoma and Texas A&M—knowing that Northwestern's players are not only smarter but better. (Q: Who was Northwestern's only All-America between 1983 and '95? A: Legendary punter John Kidd, who clearly got a lot of practice.)
When I attended Northwestern in the late 1970s, the only thing the Wildcats led the Big Ten in was number of students studying in the library on Saturday night. Our cheer, as we watched an autumn afternoon end in another 45-7 thrashing, was "S-A-T, S-A-T, S-A-T!"—a reminder that there were more important things in life than college football. (Q: Who dismissed legendary Wildcat football coach John Pont after he coaxed the '77 team to a 1-10 record? A: Legendary Wildcat athletic director John Pont.)
This season, it's difficult to keep those more important things in perspective. Why care about test scores when Northwestern is headed for its first bowl game since Bob Voigts led a bunch of 27-year-old ex-GIs to the 1949 Rose Bowl? Why care that Northwestern alumni include two Nobel Laureates, a former UN ambassador and a Supreme Court justice when opposing defenses must stack eight men on the line to try to stop sophomore running back Darnell Autry? Why care that Northwestern's business and journalism schools are among the best in the U.S. when Ohio State—hated, feared and despised Ohio State—won't go to the Rose Bowl if it loses one of its remaining conference games and the Wildcats win the rest of theirs? (Q: Name the legendary quarterback who led Northwestern to a 7-4 record and a victory over Ohio State in 1971—the last time the Wildcats beat the Buckeyes and, until this year, the last time they had a winning season. A: The legendary Maude Daigneau, who then found fame and fortune in one season with the Chicago Fire of the World Football League.)
What's even worse than losing my perspective are my fantasies. I find myself wondering what it would be like if Northwestern—god forbid—ran up the score against some hapless opponent like Illinois or Purdue. (Hey, I get excited just typing "hapless opponent" in reference to a team other than Northwestern.) The ultimate fantasy, of course, would occur on Jan. 1,1996, in Pasadena. I envision a college football universe in some sort of post-Einsteinian turmoil after Florida, Florida State, Kansas, Nebraska and Ohio State have all lost a game, and the Wildcats go to the Rose Bowl with a chance to finish No. 1 in the country. Then I see Northwestern knocking off Southern Cal and the pollsters being forced to acknowledge that football players who know who Kierkegaard is can also be national champions.
On the other hand, I am a Northwestern graduate, and the winter wind that blows across campus from Lake Michigan tends to make realists of us alumni. And if the wind doesn't do it, history always does. I'd love to be in Pasadena—or even in Shreveport on Dec. 29—but for now I'll wait for the scores on Headline News.